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Bologna Review: BN Uniyal

Published on 19 March 2012
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By BN Uniyal


At Bologna’s city centre, Piazza de Nettuno, we are queuing up early one September morning  for the coach that is to take us to Ravenna for a day trip. Just then someone from behind sends a relay mail up the queue for me. It is an A4 size sheet  of paper folded in the middle and stapled at the top.  I unfold the sheet. A review of Geoffrey Nunberg’s  The Future of the Book downloaded from the net  opens out. “The death of the book has been duly  announced,” says the review, “and with it the end of  brick-and-mortar libraries…” I turn back to see if I  can spot the bookseller who sent up the review.  There is a smiling face deep down the line with a  pair of eyes peering at me rather mischievously. The  irony of the situation is not lost on me. Here is a  California University futurist announcing the death  of the book just when this large group of antiquarian  booksellers is setting out on a tour of antiquarian  libraries in heartland Renaissance.

This is the region of Emilia-Romagna in the north of Italy that covers the provinces of Parma, Modena,  Ravenna, Cesena and Ferrara with its capital in  Bologna. This is the cultural heartland of the country,  the wellspring of Renaissance between the 14th  and 17th century. It was through the highways of  this region that the silk and spices of the east were  carried throughout Europe, eastwards to Portugal  and Spain, north to France, Germany and England  and even further up to Norway  and Sweden, and in the West  to Vienna. Traders from all  over Europe thronged the markets  of border towns of France  and Italian city states on  monthly and annual fair days  to change money and buy merchandise.  No wonder that  Bologna still continues to be  the trade fair town of not only  Italy but of all Europe too.

I am here for a fair too: the  antiquarian book fair organised  during the last week of  September this year on the  occasion of the 39th Congress  of the International League of  Antiquarian Booksellers  (ILAB). This is a highly  esteemed apex global organisation  of antiquarian booksellers  of the world. ILAB does not enroll booksellers directly as  members but admits only their  national associations as affiliates.  It is a global body but the  fact is that all but five of its 23  member associations are from  Europe and North America.

Two other countries - Australia and New Zealand -  also are from the same cultural cluster. Only three  countries - China, Japan and South Korea - are  from outside that circle. India is not a member.  India hardly has any antiquarian book dealer or  book collector. I cannot boast to be the only one  around but I am certainly the only Indian at the  biennial ILAB congress convened to elect its new  president for two years.

I am, however, an outsider at the congress, the  first from India to have been allowed at its deliberations  and the different events, banquets and tours  organised for the occasion. That is thanks to Adrian  Harrington of London, UK, the outgoing ILAB president,  and Umberto Pregliasco, the president of the  host association of Italy. They agreed to make an  exception in my case as a book collector. There is  one other non-bookseller at the Congress like me,  Bruce Littman, a collector of fine first editions from  Switzerland. During the course of the next six days  we will be visiting some of the most beautiful mediaeval  libraries of the world, renowned not only for  their large number of exquisite books and bindings  that are each a piece of most coveted jewellery but  also for their grand architecture, paintings and frescos.  The university and commune library of Bologna  itself is a place book lovers come to visit from far off  places, for the university here from 11th century is  the oldest in Europe, the first to be called a university,  actually. Then there is the Biblioteca Classense  in Ravenna, the Biblio Malatestiana in Cesena,  Biblio Estense in Modena, and Biblioteca  Gastronomica at Academia Barilla in Parma.

There is also the Bibliofilm festival specially  organised for the ILAB Congress where over two  dozen films in different languages and from different  parts of the world are shown. Every one of the  films at the festival has a book, a bookseller, a book  lover or a library at the centre of its story. What an  idea! Who could have known that so many successful  feature films have been made around books and  libraries. No wonder package library tours are  attracting book lovers, academicians and scholars  in ever larger numbers to this part of Italy in  recent years.

On the penultimate day, Umberto Eco, perhaps  the most widely known and acclaimed contemporary  Italian author, addresses a gala gathering of the  world’s foremost booksellers and booklovers. The  author of The Name of the Rose speaks with an  authoritative voice, for he is himself is an antiquarian  book collector. Later, at a dinner at a fourstoreyed  bookshop-cum-restaurant someone reads  a paper saying that though the contemporary book  is truly destined to die, the same is not true of  antiquarian books for which demand will keep on  growing with years. What a relief for booksellers  and collectors!

The article was published in TERRASCAPE (December 2010) and is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.

>>>  Visiting fine books. Bologna belies those who predict the demise of the book, by BN Uniyal (Terrascape, December 2010)

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